Interview With Author Alice Lichtenstein

Who Am I?

I’m Alice Lichtenstein, a literary fiction writer. I’m about to publish my third novel, “The Crime of Being” with Upper Hand Press, a small, but mighty independent publisher run by Ann Starr in Bexley, Ohio. My previous novels, “The Genius of the World” (Zoland, 2000) and “Lost” (Scribner, 2010) received numerous awards and excellent reviews.

Though I consider myself a fast writer, my oeuvre proves the lie! Every time I hand a manuscript to my agent, ten years have passed. Yet, in creative time, it seems speedy.

What is the real life story behind your book?

The Crime of Being was inspired by a white-on-black hate crime in Cooperstown, New York in April 2010. Eye witnesses reported that a white high school student, shouting racial epithets and death threats, chased his sole black classmate with a loaded rifle to the police station steps.

There, the white assailant shot the black classmate and then himself. Both survived. The subsequent investigation revealed that the white teenager belonged to a white supremacist group. He had detailed, written plans to kill a black person. A grand jury produced a hate crime indictment.

Living nearby, I was intrigued by how the white, affluent Cooperstown community responded to the hate crime. At first, it seemed that the town sympathized with the black victim. Over time, though, the majority opinion shifted. As national news media cast Cooperstown as racist, the white attacker became a “good Catholic boy” who “snapped” due to alleged bullying—a victim himself because of New York’s hate crime legislation assigning adult penalties to juveniles.

In my book, I wanted to explore how race, religion, and classism affect a town before, after and during a racial incident. I wanted to explore the vulnerability of everyone involved—even those on opposing sides who are convinced of their own correctness. The actual incident was the initial inspiration for fiction. I had to invent the characters and their back stories, to imagine living in their points-of-view, to find the human truths that lay beneath the facts.

How do deal with creative blocks?

Ouch. I don’t want to invoke the wrath of the Muse by answering honestly: I don’t suffer from creative blocks. The key? I tell myself that everything is part of the process of creating. I trust my unconscious to work like a magpie picking up shiny bits to hoard for future work. In the period after finishing a book—the period I’m in now—I allow myself to be preoccupied with publicizing the novel and I immerse in reading novels that I’ve put off reading because I worry about being influenced by others’ prose.

Do You have Tips on Choosing Titles and Covers?

Great question! Yes, as a matter of fact. Titles first. Allow yourself a “working title” but keep your mind open. After you have worked on a book for a few years, you might find that a different note or motif begins to sound. Pay attention. The working title for “The Crime of Being” was “Liberty”. Why? Hm. I like one-word titles. The book had a theme of personal freedom. Yet, as I got deeper into my characters and their difficulties, I discovered a more important truth—which the published title reflects. Also, I found it a more intriguing title than “Liberty”—I hope the reader will not mistake the novel for a crime novel, but will ask, “what’s the crime?” “How is ‘being’ a crime?” Buy the book and find out!

How do Bad Reviews Affect You?

I subscribe to “All publicity is good publicity”—that’s number 1. Sometimes the negative reviews crack me up. For example, I remember an Amazon reader review for “Lost” which accused the writer of penning “an obvious commercial best-seller”. I wish!!

How has your creative process improved over time?

Long ago I used to attend writers’ retreats. I was fortunate enough to twice attend the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. At MacDowell, you are treated as though you are God’s gift to your creative field. You have your own cottage, meals are cooked for you, and you get a lot of work done. However, on re-entering the real world, most artists crash. After my second Fellowship, I decided that I had to re-think my creative process. I couldn’t afford to wait for that once-a-year trip to writer’s heaven. Instead, I unplugged my phone for four hours a day and wrote. I declined lunch invitations. I didn’t clean my house (much) or weed the garden. It worked. Still does.

What were the best, worst, and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book?

Lovely question, but I can’t think of an answer! It’s always surprising to me to be carried into the story on the backs (or in the heads) of my characters. They lead the charge. I’m along for the ride.

Do you tend to write for yourself or your readers? Do balance the two?

I love this question. For me, it is a combination of the two. I write entirely for myself on one level; that is, you are never guaranteed an audience of readers. I love to write. Period. I love to work on the craft of writing. I love rewriting a sentence many, many times until I arrive at the arrangement that works.

I think of my reader these days when it comes to pacing. I’m keenly aware that NO ONE has time to read anything except text messages and FB posts. In “The Crime of Being”, I consciously

enough plot to keep the reader hooked. I wanted this to be a novel that you dip into 15 minutes before you turn out the light, but find yourself finishing at 2 a.m. Cursing the author—and loving her, too–you put your head down on the pillow and resign yourself to a day of sleep deprivation.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

Contrary to popular opinion—depression and insanity do not help!

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Sure. Write anything rather than nothing. Let writing be a form that thinking takes. It works.

Find a friend to write with. Toss out writing prompts. Set a timer—5 minutes, 10. See above.

What are your plans for future books?

I have lots of plans, but I don’t talk or write about my projects. I think it’s a good idea to keep the creative energy focused on the page.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

Why would I want to reveal that? Well, okay. I can wiggle both ears—not the standard wiggle—I can alternate left and right ears. It’s a micro-movement, but it’s for real!


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